The Santa Fe Opera’s 2019 season continued Saturday with director R.B. Schlather’s bracingly conceived and beautifully sung new production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte. Purists who insist on absolute fidelity to the opera’s original time and place are hereby warned away; others should invest in tickets to one of the remaining six performances.
The opera centers on a quartet of giddy young lovers: Fiordiligi (soprano Amanda Majeski), Dorabella (mezzo-soprano Emily D’Angelo), Ferrando (tenor Ben Bliss) and Guglielmo (baritone Jarrett Ott). By the end, though, they will receive a lesson in the complexities of emotions, hormones and commitment at the hands of Don Alfonso (baritone Rod Gilfry) and the maid Despina (soprano Tracy Dahl), two sadder-but-wiser veterans of love and loss. In what starts out as a lighthearted wager engineered by Alfonso and facilitated by Despina, the young men agree to woo the other’s fiancée to test the fidelity of the female sex.
Although often staged as a frothy comedy bolstered with 18th-century costumes and sets, Schlather rightly sees the opera as one dealing with immediate and universal human concerns. His conception of the piece emphasizes its dichotomies — truth and deception, sexual attraction and shame, experience and naivete, heaven and hell. On paper, this production sounds unusual in the extreme: no furniture, almost no props, contemporary dress and a sleek, forced-perspective set with a steeply angled stage that only briefly offers that familiar glimpse of the Jemez Mountains. Moments of intense physical activity alternated with long, static tableaux. Contrary to the libretto, characters often appeared in scenes in which they theoretically didn’t belong. Specifics mentioned in the text seldom transpired on stage.
Most of it worked brilliantly, especially during Act 1 (the nearly 90 minutes went by in a flash) and much of Act 2. It’s daring, dangerous and highly erotic, by turns strongly feminist and witheringly misogynistic. This is a high-concept exploration of our psychological dark sides, to be sure, but it also retains much of the opera’s humor, as the audience laughter on opening night demonstrated. One of the production’s triumphs was acting that throughout was completely contemporary and believable, without a trace of the mannered style often seen in operatic comedy.
Paul Tate Depoo III’s scenic design provided closed, claustrophobic world with no escape for the characters, often putting them well into the foreground. There were also a few delightful surprises, such as the Act 2 finale during which Despina becomes a wizard who can’t quite control her magic wand, setting off pyrotechnics in places right and wrong.
Terese Wadden’s costumes progressed sure-handedly through the course of the action, starting with tennis whites for the lovers, which gave them an aura of entitled superiority. Her clothes were especially effective in Act 2, which began with a senior-prom, gowns-and-tuxedos look for the lovers and ended with each in various stages of undress.
Lighting designers for this opera seldom receive more than a polite mention in reviews. But here, Jax Messenger’s inventive designs were a critical part of the storytelling and ably supported director Schlather’s stark vision. Several scenes lighted from behind were especially effective, giving the characters license to explore their physicality in the dark in ways not available to them in the light.
Santa Fe Opera Music Director Harry Bicket led a musically persuasive performance, successfully achieving a sense of late 18th-century performance style with modern instruments. The reduced string section played with a narrow vibrato, providing textures that brought Mozart’s matchless writing for winds and brass to the fore. Sharply articulated rhythms helped move things along without undue rush, but Bicket’s willingness to opt for slower than expected tempos from time to time also made dramatic sense. Stationed atop a platform with full view of the stage, keyboardist Clinton Smith provided able and witty accompaniments during the semi-sung, semi-spoken recitatives.
Soprano Majeski, mezzo-soprano D’Angelo and tenor Bliss offered superlative singing as three of the four young lovers. Majeski’s beautifully produced lyric soprano has just enough edge to encompass the character’s emotional extremes and the vocal range to conquer the role’s enormous range of high and low notes. D’Angelo’s dark, dramatic timbre emphasized Dorabella’s volatility, and her voice blended beautifully with Majeski’s in their duets. She also offered a telling physical portrayal, starting as an awkward adolescent girl transformed by her first experience of sex into a powerful, confident woman.
Bliss gave a master class in Mozart for lyric tenors, singing with style, sensitivity and easily achieved upper register. He also was not afraid to put clarity of meaning and emotional content ahead of beautiful tone at appropriate moments. Baritone Jarrett Ott, a former Santa Fe Opera apprentice in the role of Guglielmo, was very good, if not quite at the same vocal level as his colleagues. His athletic demeanor and beefy voice worked well in many places, but there wasn’t as much tonal variety and sensitivity to text in his singing, along with a tendency to drag tempos at times.
Gilfry, a distinguished Guglielmo on stage and in recordings, now takes on Don Alfonso, partnered by Dahl as Despina, the worldly-wise duo masterminding the proceedings. They were terrific. You’ll never see or hear it performed better, or with more depth of character. In this production, there’s an unusually rich backstory for the two, who have become “friends with benefits.” There’s a suggestion that they were once lovers who experienced the same education they’re now foisting on others. Surely, the current quartet of lovers is just one of their many graduating classes, with more to come.
As Act 2 progresses, suppressed anger and resentment surface for both. Matters take on a nastier, vindictive tone, and we see the likelihood that 40 years from now, their places will be taken by Fiordiligi, Dorabella, Ferrando and Guglielmo. This interpretation can’t quite overcome the intense musical catharsis built into the finale. The opera’s ending is realistic, unsettling and inconclusive, but not nihilistic, as it is staged here.